I’m standing in a concrete holding cell measuring about 6 x 12 feet, with florescent lighting and a toilet with a built-in drinking fountain on the back. This small room is where I come each week to meet with the inmates of the Washita County Jail. They come in groups, and so I have time between each visit to sit alone silently in a spare, empty room. As a somewhat reserved person, I start to wonder if I could enjoy staying here (provided that I have something to read). It’s quiet. There are no distractions—I’m not even allowed to bring in my precious phone. I am alone with God. Obviously, I know there are countless challenges to life in jail—I hear about them each week from the men I visit. But these moments of silence got me thinking about how there are two kinds of people who live in cells: inmates and monks. So what if I could help these inmates see this jail as a monastery?
Many of the conversations I have with these men in orange jumpsuits focus on perspective. I have often heard them say that being in jail gives them a different outlook on their previous life and the choices and habits that brought them there. Equally important, though, is their perspective on their current incarceration. These thoughtful men tell me about the frustrations of living with cellmates, the loneliness of missing loved ones, and, in some cases, the injustice of their situation, and how it can lead to a retreat into bitterness and anger. But they also know that the loss of life’s normal comforts can be an opportunity for growth. The situation may look the same from the outside, but internally, they are the ones who decide whether this will be a time of spiritual growth or spiritual decay. So they commit to making changes, but these changes often don’t stick, no matter how sincere they are in their desire to improve. No matter their perspective on their time in jail, when they’re out, they find old habits die hard.
Many recent writers have emphasized the importance of habits in personal and spiritual growth (in case you still haven’t read it, I’ll give another recommendation for James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love). What we do is more shaped by our unconscious routines than our conscious intentions, whether you’re talking about kicking a drug habit or going to bed on time. Despite not always knowing the psychology behind it, Christians for centuries have turned to the habits of spiritual disciplines to form believers into the likeness of Christ. This is why monastic life is defined by the structured routine of prayer and a rule of life. But the emphasis of a rule of life is not on the rules; it’s about the life it makes possible. Imitating Christ in these small, boring ways is the path to full Christlike character. As Dallas Willard says, “To live as Christ lived is to live as he did all his life.” 
So rather than continuing only to study the Bible with my friends in jail, I decided to introduce other classic spiritual disciplines. Over the course of ten weeks, we studied and practiced Lectio Divina, the prayer of Examen, Sabbath, fasting, the Daily Office, breath prayer, and more. Though time was limited, I felt it important to actually practice these disciplines rather than simply talk about them. After all, the point of this experiment was to move the center of faith from the head to the body. If these disciplines remain ideas in their heads, how will that help them change their habits during and after their time in these cells?
At times, this commitment to practice created interesting challenges. It’s hard to practice silence and stillness when guards are working loudly on the other side of the holding cell. But when is there ever a perfect time or place for prayer? If we’re overly concerned with finding the right time, the time will never come. We often must learn to discipline ourselves in the midst of distraction, whether we find ourselves in jail, working a stressful job, or spending the day with needy children.
It was also interesting to see how the setting shaped the conversation about certain practices. What does it mean to practice giving up work when you’re prevented from working? What’s the point in talking about fasting from luxuries when so much is already denied? Again, it comes down to perspective. While this may not be the fast they would have chosen, those with eyes to see can view their loss as a season for gaining reliance on God.
Whether we live in a jail cell, in a monk’s cell, or in a comfortable home, spiritual disciplines are ultimately about freedom. The paradox of practice is that by developing a structured way of life we become free to be who God created us to be. All of us on some level are chained to self-centered habits. By exchanging the spirits of the age for the spirit of God, we find freedom. And this freedom is available right now, even in the county jail.
 The Spirit of the Disciplines, page 5.